While Machu Picchu may be Peru’s crown jewel, the actual journey to get there is nearly just as jaw-dropping—and totally underrated. The Sacred Valley in the country’s southern region holds an incredible array of Inca ruins, which can all be found along the route leading up to the famed peak.
Tours are easily booked from Cusco, either as a day trip or as part of a Machu Picchu tour. If you’re heading out for the day there are a number of options, including travelling around with a group on a coach bus, hiring a private driver or exploring on horseback. I’d recommend a private guide if possible, as organized tours may make you spend more time in places you don’t want to be, and less time at the ruins (which are obviously the highlight.)
Many itineraries include a stop for lunch, so make sure yours is included otherwise you’ll be stuck paying $20+ for a subpar buffet.
After leaving Cusco, you’ll travel along windy one-lane roads, passing goats, sheep and llamas grazing by the side of the highway. If you’re able to peek through the trees, you’ll see the breathtaking, lush valleys surrounded by steep cliffs. Pull over for some photo-ops, before continuing to a what is essentially a roadside stand dedicated to souvenirs. If you need to pick up an Alpaca blanket, this is your place!
My stubborn husband bravely took on not one, not two, but three ladies as he bartered down the price of his soon-to-be prized blanket. Originally 100 soles, he ended up bringing it home for 48 soles—so be sure to negotiate if you plan to pick up anything in the market.
Next up are the gorgeous Pisac ruins, which are perched at the top of a slope overlooking both natural and man-made agricultural terraces. Affording stunning, panoramic views of the entire valley stretched out below, the site has paths and steps that wind through the stone ruins. Your guide will lead you around the temples, terraces and tunnels, and you can also look down onto the Sacred River.
The highlight of the whole complex is the Templo del Sol, and there are also lots of neat nooks and crannies which make for great photo-ops. Be sure to budget at least a few hours to explore the site.
A quick drive down the hill will put you in the little town of Pisac (also spelled Pisaq). Home to a weekly market and little shops, you can pick up souvenirs like silver jewelry, or simply wander around. To be honest there is not a lot to do here other than buy things, though there are adorable children like this:
From there you’ll stop in Urubamba for that pricey lunch, then continue on to stunning Ollantaytambo (try saying that 10 times backwards!) One of the last Inca towns to fall, it features a well preserved town centre complete with the original aqueducts. Navigating the cobblestone streets can be a bit of a challenge, but the place has such a charm to it that many tourists end up spending a night here.
Hopefully you’ve brought good walking shoes, because the hike up the impressive Ollantaytambo fortress is steep! The crumbling buildings are tucked into the hill on terraces, and visitors are able to get right next to them. The huge stones are in contrast to the foliage covering the surrounding hills, which you’ll get a great view of from so high up. Spend at least a couple of hours exploring the site, before heading back down to catch your train to Aguas Calientes—aka the base of Machu Picchu.
Sacred Valley hikes
If the iconic, multi-day hike up to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail is a bit too much, there are some other excellent hikes in the Sacred Valley region which explore stunning landscapes, archaeological sites and local communities.
Lamay to Pisac: Starting in the community of Lamay, this moderately challenging hike takes visitors through the Puna grasslands, along peaks, around lagoons and to the Pisac archeological site before dropping down to the town of Pisac itself, where the buildings, plazas and temples display the finest in Inca architecture.
Moray to Maras: This moderately difficult hike takes visitors along an old mule trail that passes through farmlands and joins two of the Sacred Valley’s best-known Inca sites: the round agricultural complex of Moray and the terraced salt mines of Maras.
Pumamarca to Ollantaytambo: Starting at the beautiful though rarely visited Pumamarca ruins, this easy-to-moderate hike follows a traditional Inca trail downhill towards the town of Ollantaytambo, through terraced landscapes and local Quechua settlements.
Cost: Visitors must buy a Sacred Valley tour ticket (available at the ruins), which is 70 soles for one day, or 130 soles for 10 days. If you plan to stay in Cusco for an extended time, it is a good idea to get the 10 day pass so you get more time to explore the sites.
Top tip: If you’re heading out via bus, sit on the left side for the best views.
When to go: High tourist season is June through October. The weather throughout the Sacred Valley is much warmer than Lima and Cusco tend to be.
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